DeSantis vs. Disney: A National Showdown Between a U.S. Senator and Mickey Mouse

When Florida state governor, Ron DeSantis, decided to exchange his wedding vows at Walt Disney World’s Grand Floridian Chapel in 2009, he did not expect that he would be in a heavily publicized feud with the company behind Mickey Mouse. He went as far as declaring that “there’s a new sheriff in town,” a statement soon became synonymous with his feud with the Walt Disney Company. Despite such a declaration of DeSantis’ power in the Sunshine State, the House of Mouse did not necessarily abide by suing the Florida governor for “weapon[izing] government power” over the company. Disney has been and continues to be a great deal of importance to the state of Florida as its “largest single taxpayer” with a total of “1.1 billion dollars in state and local taxes.” However, the lawsuit was Disney’s final strike following a string of threats he made towards Disney such as dismantling Disney’s special tax district in Florida and potentially building a state prison next to Walt Disney World.

Before the feud, DeSantis was happy to receive Disney’s total campaign contributions of more than $100,000, praised Disney’s COVID-19 precautions during the pandemic, and even endorsed Disney over its rival, Universal at a town hall in 2021. DeSantis was not the sole politician that received campaign contributions from Disney in Florida as the company has a history of donating millions to Florida lawmakers and political parties for years. From such campaign contributions, Disney enjoyed its status as a favored company and often leveraged its influence over the state to get what it wanted from elected officials.

Behind the feud: HB 1557

In an attempt to actualize his potential as the 2024 Republican presidential candidate, Gov. DeSantis and his administration had to begin to “stake his political future on an ‘anti-woke’ crusade against LGBTQ+ and people of color”: bans on gender-affirming care, books, and revising an AP course on Black history until it made significant changes to his liking. The catapulting cause behind the fracture between Disney and DeSantis was the passing of one particular bill, HB 1557 or the “Parental Rights in Education” law, which bans any educational discussion of “sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten to 3rd grade. Should a Floridian student identify as queer or trans and confides this to school officials, HB 1557 legally mandates for the school officials to notify parents about this matter. Colloquially, HB 1557 is referred to as “Don’t Say Gay” as the law imposes a rigid restriction over “discussions of LGBTQ+ topics in public schools,” going as far as being considered to be an ideal sample of Republican proposals for many U.S. states.

After the bill’s introduction in March 2022, Disney’s executives reacted rather slowly to the news as then-CEO Bob Chapek wrote a memo to disappointed Disney workers that “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds… often weaponized by one side or the other to further divide and inflame.” He continued this stance in Disney’s annual shareholder meetings, claiming that Disney’s lack of a public position was due to his belief that “we could be more effective working behind the scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.” Chapek further attempted to say that he had spoken to DeSantis to “express [Disney’s] disappointment” and his concerns regarding the bill, but to no avail.

Disney’s inability to veto HB 1557 raised many questions from supporters and staff members who were already aware of the power Disney wielded over Florida, having a consistent history of getting what it wanted from the Floridian government and legislation. Despite Disney’s “historically poor reputation surrounding LGBTQ inclusion,” the company was able to deftly appease both LGBTQ+ and anti-LGBTQ+ supporters. For example, Disney executive Bob Iger was noted to play a crucial role in convincing Georgia’s governor to veto a bill where it is legal for “faith-based groups to refuse services to LGBTQ individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs.”

According to Sean Griffin, a professor of film and media arts at Southern Methodist University, Disney’s approach of appeasing both sides “looks increasingly like it’s not going to work anymore.” And so, Chapek attempted to reconcile Disney’s bystander approach by announcing a plan to donate $5 million to LGBTQ groups—one being the Human Rights Campaign. However, the Human Rights Campaign declined to receive Disney’s donation and its president stated that Disney “took a regrettable stance by choosing to stay silent” and needed to take meaningful action. Meanwhile, Chapek’s reluctant actions prompted Gov. DeSantis to characterize the company as “woke” and vowed to sign the bill into law in a video sent to Fox News.

It is not simply supporters, but also the people inside Mickey Mouse’s parent company that wanted to see more accountability from Florida’s biggest single taxpayer to combat such a bill. “Now, Disney looked like it was putting economic concerns ahead of what it claims are its values,” says Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida and co-author of “Politics in Florida.” Many Disney employees staged a “Disney Do Better Walkout” while one single person protested outside the grounds of the amusement park branch in Orlando, resulting in Disney suspending all political donations in Florida. Then-CEO Bob Chapek issued an apology to Disney workers that he had “missed the mark in this case but… [is] an ally you can count on,” while stating that Disney will increase their support for “advocacy groups to fight similar legislation in other states.” Disney continued in stating that it should have done more to stop the bill from passing and will make attempts for its repeal, claiming that HB 1557 “should never have passed and should never have been signed into law.”

The feud escalates: Reedy Creek Improvement District and King Charles III’s granddaughter

What came after Disney’s public opposition and attempts to repeal HB 1557 soon erupted into a full-blown feud which DeSantis deemed as “cross[ing] the line” at the press conference following the bill’s passing. He characterized Disney as “fundamentally dishonest” and claimed that Disney’s behavior was unethical towards children. Furthermore, DeSantis denounced Disney entirely: “You’re a corporation based in Burbank, California, and you’re going to martial your economic might to attack the parents of my state? We view that as a provocation, and we’re going to fight back against that.”

A few Republican legislators began to aid in DeSantis’ feud with Disney, attempting to review the Reedy Creek Improvement Act—an act passed in 1967 that gave Disney the legal autonomy to “act like its own county government.” The area that inhabited Disney World was not as well-developed as the nearest municipal services like power and water lines were “up to 15 miles away,” so the 1967 legislation indicated that Disney would be the only one paying for these expenses. As Disney aimed to transform the 38.5 square miles of swampland and uninhabited land into a global destination, the act allowed them to foot the bill for “power, water, roads, and fire protection” while local taxpayers would not have to pay for such services.

Following the beginning of his feud, DeSantis and fellow Republican legislators began to work on a series of bills aimed to dismantle Disney’s self-governance, returning Reedy Creek’s autonomy to the state of Florida. One Republican legislator who has sponsored legislation to eliminate Disney’s hold over the district, Rep. Randy Fine, deemed Disney as a “guest in Florida,” adding that “[Disney] ask for special privileges that no other company in the state of Florida has, including their competitors.” Rep. Fine reasoned that the elimination of this district would allow for local taxpayers to “get the revenue that Disney is paying to Reedy Creek,” while ensuring that “their tax bills would not increase.” When the bills related to Reedy Creek Improvement District passed, DeSantis immediately considered it as his victory against the media giant and asserted that “Disney would now pay more in taxes to the state.” Following this self-proclaimed victory, DeSantis also focused on efforts to dissolve the Reedy Creek Improvement District entirely.

However, Disney also put up a fight by stating that DeSantis’ efforts of dissolving Reedy Creek in 2023 are illegal unless Florida manages to pay off Reedy Creek’s “extensive debts.” Since its creation, Reedy Creek Improvement Act positioned Disney to have widespread governmental control over the land that encompasses Disney World. As of 2022, Reedy Creek’s bond debt is an estimated “$1 billion in outstanding bond debt” which will be redirected to be paid by the state. The day before DeSantis assumes control over Reedy Creek, renamed to the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District,” the departing board of directors circumvented the power the incoming DeSantis-approved board of directors will have by “signing away any decision-making authority beyond maintaining roads and infrastructure.” The departing board also added another clause in which the district will be prohibited from “using copyrighted Disney material” as it is only reserved for Disney.

This particular reorganization of the district was ensured by the “rule against perpetuities,” a common law property rule that is designed to prevent “ownership of land from being controlled forever (or in perpetuity).” The rule against perpetuities states that “a will, estate plan, or other legal document intending to transfer property ownership more than 21 years after the death of the primary recipient is void.” To simplify, this particular law prevents a person from having too much control over owned property for an indefinite time by “limiting them to 21 years past the death of a specific person who is alive as of the date of the deal.” With this in mind, the “specific person who is alive as of the date of the deal” within Disney’s compliance with the rule against perpetuities is no other than “the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England”: Princess Lilibet, born in 2021. And so, if she lives to 75 years old, the power the incoming DeSantis-approved board wields will continue to be ineffective for at least 100 years.

Walt Disney Co. strikes back

After Disney’s workaround with the rule against perpetuities, DeSantis was conspicuously furious at the realization that his board was incapable of enacting change concerning Reedy Creek and vowed retribution. His threats towards Disney’s stealth power grab ranged from “taxing Disney hotels and placing road tolls,” “developing some of the property that the district owns” (with competitive amusement parks), even putting “a state prison next to Walt Disney World.” In response, Disney publicized their first LGBTQ+ event at Disneyland in California during Pride Month that aimed to “celebrate the LGBTQ communities and allies.” Meanwhile, the HB 1557 act expanded to all grades in Florida, no longer simply banned from kindergarten to third grade.

By April 2023, Disney decided to sue DeSantis, his handpicked board for the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, and Florida Department of Economic Opportunity acting strategy Meredith Ivey. When the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District aimed to invalidate the agreement between Disney and its former board through a vote, Disney filed the lawsuit and characterized DeSantis’ behavior as “a targeted campaign of government retaliation—orchestrated at every step by Governor DeSantis as punishment for Disney’s protected speech.” Disney further alleged that DeSantis’ feud with the company “now threatens Disney’s business operations, jeopardizes its economic future in the region, and violates its constitutional rights.” And so, Disney could not help but “find itself in this regrettable position because it expressed a viewpoint the Governor and his allies did not like… [wishing] that things could have been resolved a different way.” The company behind Mickey Mouse asked a federal judge to “void the takeover of the theme park district” and DeSantis’ board’s actions as “they were violations of the company’s free speech rights.”

The Central Florida Tourism Oversight District had also lawyered up in March 2023, hiring a slew of law firms to represent the district in legal matters with Disney. However, Disney’s current CEO, Bob Iger stated that “the company has a right to freedom of speech just like individuals do” and DeSantis “seek[s] to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right… particularly against a company that means so much to the state [he] lives in.” The impact Disney has over Florida is immeasurable as it made what used to be a series of uninhabitable swamplands to a global tourist attraction, inviting an average of 62 million visitors annually.

Due to DeSantis’ threats, Disney also announced that they are scrapping plans to build a “$1 billion office complex in Florida” that aimed to be “a regional hub for parks and resorts.” The decision came at an expense of 2,000 white-collar jobs from finance and technology to marketing from California, confirming Disney’s overall questions about the company’s investment in the state. In a conference call, Iger asked: “Does the state want us to invest more, employ more people, and pay more taxes, or not?” Disney was set to invest over $17 billion and create over 13,000 jobs in Florida “over the next 10 years,” but DeSantis’ feud continues to create reservations for the company behind Mickey Mouse.

Disney CEO, Bob Iger, was photographed alongside Gov. Gavin Newsom of California at Disney on June 2023, discussing “an expansion plan that would generate thousands of jobs.” The hypocrisy behind DeSantis’ rationale behind his battle is even further highlighted: for a state that prides itself for being “pro-business,” DeSantis is inadvertently punishing Floridians financially through his attempts of proving a point as now, Disney will decrease on their investment on the Sunshine State and surrounding businesses will suffer.

Public opinion on the feud

In his campaign to become the 2024 Republican presidential candidate, DeSantis utilized his feud with Disney as a way to champion himself as the defender against Disney’s “woke” criticism of HB 1557. In other instances, DeSantis portrayed his feud to be a fight for fairness as Disney is forced to put on a “level playing field with every other business in Florida.” Florida Senator Joe Grueters, a former chairman of Florida’s Republican Party, called the canceled $1 billion campus as “a serious blow,” losing “2,000 jobs and a billion dollars worth of investments.” Democratic politician Anna Eskamani, representing Orlando in the Florida House of Representatives, directly blamed DeSantis for the lost jobs: “Governor Ron DeSantis is a job killing moron who cares more about his politician ambitions and culture wars than Florida and our future… According to him, ‘woke makes you go broke’ but this is another example of how it’s actually the complete opposite. DeSantis is not who you want for President—ever.”

According to a survey conducted by Florida Atlantic University, there is currently no public consensus on the feud in Florida. However, there is a partisan split where “81% of surveyed Florida Republican [are] pro-DeSantis” while “76% of Democrats” are pro-Disney. Among those who are independent (bearing no political affiliation), 42.2% sided with DeSantis while 41.8% supported Disney. Despite the public nature of his feud with Disney, the national polls for the 2024 Republican presidential candidate showed DeSantis as a distant second choice for President with a polling average of 15.6% (against Trump’s 52.4%).

Legal implications for DeSantis vs. Disney

Disney is far from the first corporation that has been punished by the government for speaking out on issues, but the extreme lengths that DeSantis had gone to have “baffled his own political party for the precedent it sets.” Political commentator Megyn Kelly noted that if this is what is currently occurring—a Republican government official attempting to punish a corporation for opposing views, what is stopping a Democratic official? Legal experts stated that the final ruling for Disney’s lawsuit could have major “implications for corporate speech and how governments respond it.”

The constant bickering with Disney has now become a prominent feature of his presidential campaign, documented in fundraising emails and rallies. Beyond the press conferences and interviews, DeSantis dedicated a full chapter of his autobiography, “The Courage to Free,” to none other than Disney and their feud. DeSantis portrayed his feud against the Mickey Mouse company as a battle for justice: “Leaders must be willing to stand up and fight back when big corporations make the mistake, as Disney did, of using their economic might to advance a political agenda.”

DeSantis’ book is noted to be a substantial piece of evidence for Disney’s First Amendment lawsuit with the Florida governor. The lawsuit utilizes DeSantis’ statements and excerpts of his books as evidence as they were “left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect its cast members, guests, and local development partners from a relentless campaign to weaponize government power against Disney in retaliation for expressing a political viewpoint unpopular with certain State officials.”

Even though Disney’s argument is quite strong, many experts say that it does not necessarily indicate an immediate victory for Mickey Mouse and the case has the potential to escalate to the federal Supreme Court. Rebecca Tushnet, a First Amendment professor at Harvard Law School, said that should DeSantis come out victorious, “legislatures that share his views are going to accelerate this, unquestionably, in any way they can.” Meanwhile, if Disney wins, it could prevent future forms of retaliation by government officials. A Florida First Amendment lawyer, Gary Edinger, predicts that Disney will prevail on the First Amendment grounds.

However, it is not the only Amendment that Disney claims that DeSantis violated as he also took their “property without adequate compensation” without “legitimate state interest”—ultimately violating the 14th Amendment’s Due Process clause. DeSantis had requested immunity from their legal feud, aiming to push the trial to August 4, 2025—more than 2 years from now and a year after the presidential election (should he manage to defeat Trump’s overwhelming lead). On Disney’s side, they aim for the trial to start on July 15, 2024—the 1st day of the Republican National Convention where Republicans will decide on who their 2024 presidential candidate will be. Regardless of the date, the consequences of the lawsuit will have significant implications on free speech, dictating whether the government can have control over corporations’ free speech and allegiances.